Read close, o my best beloved, and picture the scene. It is a cold and idle weekday in February. The dance-floor at L— Nightclub is barely a third full. The clientele are young, but in this light it is difficult to be sure that they are over eighteen. Many wear those jumpers with hoods you will have seen in photographs. Thin girls in white denim dresses have braids in their hair. Three youths in turbans lurk in the corner, by the dirty pillar that blocks the view from the bar.
Chunky hip-hop performer ‘Sway’ saunters on stage with the arrogance of a MOBO winner (for that is what he is). Behind him bounces his accompanist for this evening, DJ Turkish. They are both wearing Union Jack tea towels over their faces, like patriotic bank robbers. “These rappers couldn’t see me coming if they were vaginas with spectacles,” shouts Sway, before telling us a story about the mysterious Land of Harveynicks. The entertainment has begun.
We are in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital – yes, you know it well, my friend! – in the shadow of the famous castle, where legions of tourists flock each summer to watch the tartan fuelled military tattoo. It is a place where English residents of the city complain that, these days, it is being over-run by Australians. It is a place where a man with a Ghanaian name is reciting American-inspired slam poetry, to a beat hammered out by a Turk from North London. And what of this young audience? Believe me when I tell you, if you were to conquer the countries of their parents, then truly the sun would never set upon your Empire.
Let us be clear, so we make no mistake. Your task in 2009 will be to unite all these people: The tartan tattoo day-trippers, the snobbish English students, the sullen Sikhs… and Sway, who waves the Union Jack proudly, just as you asked. You must convince them that they are one people, and that they all belong to the same privileged club. You must describe the values and the traditions that they must learn to love.
Not for you the broken beatz of DJ Turkish, your backing track must be composed by Edward Elgar. Those who remember Winston Churchill, our Greatest Briton Ever, will let slip a smile of approval as they sip their tea.
Remember: The imperative to explain our shared nationality is a noble cause. The politics of the twenty-first century is being, and will continued to be, defined not by conflicts between nations, but by conflict between cultures. Just like the rest of Europe (indeed the world), our country is now home to peoples who consider themselves to be straddling a cultural divide. As you know, the presence of Islam in this country is the most obvious example at present, but our colonial legacy ensures that there are others too, especially from Africa and the Indian subcontinent. If a clash of cultures is imminent, it will occur as much at home as it will in the deserts of Arabia, and you must seek ways to prevent this coming about. To stave off the risk of this conflict, you must foster some kind of reconciliation, with those people who still consider themselves to be different. Finding a catch-all definition, some kind encompassing club that trumps their heritage and their religion, will become your obsession. You will grapple with the idea of Britishness! Your challenge is to give it a definition that ensures that no one is left behind. We will not implode on your watch.
I need not talk to you, of all people, about cultural conflict. Our country has been riddled with seismic faults for centuries, which often (or occasionally, depending on how much history you are considering) spill over into violence. Saxons fight with Romans, Vikings, Celts, and finally the Normans. Abrasive relationships between the dominant English and the subjugated Welsh, Scots and the Irish; between the Catholics and the Protestants; and recently, between the white majority, and post-colonial immigrant groups. For The Boyne, Banockburn or Culloden, read Brixton, Handsworth, or Bradford. It is a mixed group of people on these Islands, my friend. Remember that they do not always get on.
This brutal historical fact is a thorn in the side of any ruler or ruling party, so remember it well. For a King or Prime Minister who wishes to maintain order and prosperity for himself and his people, it makes no sense to ferment upheaval and unrest.
For your predecessors, defining Britishness was an easy project, because the confines of the nation – the club – were so obvious and unarguable. We shared a religion and skin colour. The North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean conspired with the moat of the English Channel to maroon us here. Geography sustained our nation (more or less), and it was easy to forge a country that would last for a millennia, while The Continent played tennis with its major cities. With obvious and undisputed borders, it was easy to maintain a sense of nationality: not through a sense of who we were, but who we were not. This is the essence of nationality: When we define who is in the club, we must also define who is out of it. We now reach a point of crisis, because those who were traditionally excluded are now knocking on our door, demanding entry as their right. How confusing then, to invite The Barbarians at the Gate in for tea.
You are right, my friend, to lament that there is no single day that we point to as the birth of our country. 29th September 1066 hardly qualifies, since that was the conquest of mere England, and by a Frenchman at that. 24th March 1603 might be more appropriate, when the Scotsman James VI merged his throne with that of his mother’s murderer. But his was a divisive reign, and it could hardly be said that his kingdom was “united”. Other dates fall into similar problems – each milestone in the advance towards a United Kingdom means the suppression of one of its constituencies. Each ‘Act of Union’ that increased power in London was also a death knell for one of its neighbours. To suggest we should celebrate them now would not be a popular move.
We are perhaps alone in this dilemma. Other countries can define themselves by their liberation (such a noble virtue to found a country!) from a dominant other, one that is usually… well, us. Our friends in America define themselves against our King George. Each country in our Commonwealth celebrates the day when we were no longer their masters. Our European neighbours can define themselves against the plague of dictators that blighted the twentieth century.
Who is our oppressor? There is none. Our history is long and unconquered, and we have no Independence Day to show for it.
We were almost conquered, however. The tremors of the Second World War reverberate today: it shaped the culture and identity of you and your parents. In the autumn of 1940 a few brave men staved off an aerial invasion. We call it the Battle of Britain, the time when we repelled the aggressor, the would-be oppressor. Hitler never defeated us, but the extent to which we define ourselves against him reaches deep into our psyche, even today. Our public squares commemorate wars, and the people of this island who died fighting people from somewhere else. Our statues celebrate war leaders like Nelson. Churchill, the inspirational leader and orator who led us during the greatest threat to this nation in centuries, stands outside your window.
So in times of war we can see precisely who we are not, and therefore get some handle upon who we are. It has always been the case that our sense of shared identity is at its strongest during these times. The Imperialism of the Victorian era ensured that this was the usual state of affairs. Britannia was Great, and it ruled the waves. If in doubt: go to war (it did Thatcher no harm at the ballot box).
In the absence of conflicts that require national mobilisation, we feel British most keenly during other moments of national unity. The British have a macabre tendency to identify themselves with dead royalty, so use that to your advantage. More importantly, they can be relied upon to come together during those periodic pseudo-wars: sporting events. The World Cup, the Olympics, Eurovision: In these periods, our Britishness is easily defined. We live here, and the members of our team have been chosen because they do too. Amir Khan, the Muslim upon whom everyone can agree. Kevin Pietersen, British hero, and South-African. Remember those names with pride, my friend, when you ride out to lead the charge at Stratford in 2012.
This will be popular, and you may ride the wave of red, white and blue for a short while. But you and I agree that the public deserves better. The idea persists that to be British is somehow to be part of a unique group. To simply declare anyone who is born here to be British seems an incomplete definition. Random geography is not an ideology, just administration.
In any case, geography is not the reason people say they feel British. Our sense of history, and the propaganda of our past, leads us to believe there is something more to the concept, something that makes us truly special. In short: What are we proud of?
Here the modern attempts to pin-point Britishness begin, the focus groups raise their standard, and our problems arise at exactly this moment. Some people are seduced by things, and they will attempt to define the national character by icons. The Bobby On The Beat. A Cup Of Tea. A Pint of Lager. A London Bus. Morris Dancers for heaven’s sake. Do not be drawn into these debates. They are red herrings. At all times remember that the buses still run in London, even if Red Ken abolished the Routemaster. Painting a public convenience the same bright red colour might make a revolution, but to run a country you need more than that.
When it comes to British culture, icons simply do not cut it. This is why we do not have a national dress. It is not that we lack the imagination, or that there are not plenty of quintessentially British things that we could choose to idolise in limited edition commemorative plates. Instead, we have all been brought up to believe that Britishness is a state of mind. It is down to you to tell us what that state of mind shall be.
Do not bother with blind patriotism. It is a base instinct, with no redeeming qualities. The monarch and the flag you are born under is a random event, and do not deserve unqualified support. Do not assume that because your country exists, it is necessarily valuable. This is an arrogant solipsism that will result in casual, needless death – As many patriots are found on the wrong side of history, as on the right side of it. Fighting and dying for the flag is banal, a sacrifice that means nothing in itself. A nation only acquires meaning, and its martyrs only receive salvation, through the ideas and traits with which the nation associates itself. This is not the same thing as tradition, which is blind to rational argument.
Listen closely, my friend, for now we reach the crucial piece of advice. It is noble ideas that make a country great, not its histories or traditions. And the ideas are prior to countries. We cannot claim them for our own. The fact is that all the noble traits created by humanity, have evolved over the millennia. It is ridiculous to suggest that Britain is the one true home of democracy, say, or freedom. Great men and women from these isles have advanced them, I grant you that. But you must equally admit that men and women from other places have advanced the ideas too, and just as far. Even Our Finest Hour is not isolated. Other heroic warriors have repelled other great forces, for as long as there has been conflict.
We hold the monopoly on nothing. Therefore, the first, and most radical step you can take is to give up any sole claim to the fine traits of which humanity is proud. Democracy, freedom, tolerance, a respect for the rule of law. And let us not forget: a sense of humour. Let us do away with the absurd notion that we invented them, and that they are somehow better when demonstrated by the British. The fine qualities of which we are proud are not British qualities, but human qualities.
How liberating! Our pride can extend all the way around the globe, not just to the confines of our tiny shores. Take pride in Voltaire, Mark Twain, or Mahatma Ghandi. Declare affinity with people based on ideas, not the fact that we were born in the same part of the world. As for me? I have a greater affinity with JL Borges than JK Rowling. She lives less than a mile away from me, and yet we have little in common. He is my countryman, even though he died in Buenos Aires twenty years ago.
Cut yourself free from the shackles of history, and the noose of tradition. Return to the idea of Britishness as a geographical identifier, and nothing more. Do away with idea that the British identity was something tangible and definable. It is just a convenient plaything for those politicians who seek to divide the country. The British myth is fading fast into irrelevance, and finally obsolescence. A quaint, discredited idea, a joke of history. For this passing we should be thankful, for our panic over how to define it was only ever a barrier to proper conversations. Skip over it, and answer more important questions. There is an entire world to engage with, Gordon! Forget your jelly-bellied flag waving.
Speak only of the values we wish to share here in the present. It is only in this manner that you will be able to communicate to the entire population, because ‘the present’ is the only thing we really have in common.